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I give 10 percent of my income to charity. You should, too.

Regular giving, even in small amounts, can save lives.

A small boy carries a packaged bednet.
Antsokia Woreda, a boy in Mekoy, Ethiopia, carries bednet packaging. Insecticidal bednets are one of the most cost-effective ways to save a human life.
Louise Gubb/Corbis via Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

It’s Giving Tuesday, and it’s time for me to do what I do on Vox every Giving Tuesday: encourage people to give more money to effective charities.

Over years of doing this, I’ve gotten a long and familiar list of objections. I decided this Giving Tuesday to try my best to answer them.

What are you asking me to do?

I am asking you to give 10 percent of your pretax income to a charity that saves lives. I personally give my 10 percent to GiveWell’s top charities fund, which redistributes it to highly effective global health charities like the Malaria Consortium and Helen Keller International. GiveWell estimates that for every $5,000 gift, these charities will save one human life.

I think of GiveWell as like the charity version of an index fund: It’s a rigorous, impartial recommender that you can donate to without having to pick and choose individual causes. It’s also, disclosure, an advertiser on Vox podcasts, though I’ve been using it since long before that was true.

10 percent seems like a lot.

It’s significant. For the average American household, which has an income of roughly $75,000, it’s a $7,500 commitment. That’s a real bite, but it’s also more than enough to save a life.

I don’t know if I can afford 10 percent …

That’s fair! Can you do 5 percent?

Maybe …

I would go as low as 1 percent!

But then that’s only $750 a year, and that can’t save a life.

Well, every five years you would. And if you want to do more good, we can always go back to 10 percent!

Okay, okay, 10 percent. Isn’t that kind of religious?

For sure: The practice of tithing in many world religions is a key inspiration here. The twist is that I’m suggesting tithing not to religious institutions but to highly effective charities (which could be religious or not — it’s not their beliefs that matter, but their effectiveness).

So why these particular charities?

Because there’s a huge, huge difference between what the most and least effective charities can accomplish with donations. You might think that charities are like brands of dish soap…

I’ve never once thought that.

It’s an analogy, give me a second. The absolute best dish soap is probably, at most, a tiny bit better than the average brand, right? I mean it’s just soap. Even Wirecutter says “you probably can’t go wrong with most name-brand dish detergents.”

Fair enough, soap is soap.

But really, charities are more like chef’s knives. The difference between the best and worst knife is enormous and affects the entire process of cooking, or so it has been explained to me by superior cooks. It’s the difference between an enjoyable time in the kitchen versus pure drudgery (and a heightened chance you inadvertently chop off your fingertip).

So what does this have to do with charity?

What it has to do with charity is that the vast majority of nonprofits have no evidence of positive impact at all, and even charities brave enough to agree to rigorous tests of their impact see widely variable effectiveness. In global development, something like 60 to 70 percent of interventions tested show no results at all, which effectively means the money donated could have just been thrown down a hole.

And among those that do show results, the size of the impact varies drastically. The researcher Benjamin Todd has looked into these questions a lot, examining nine different databases of program impact, and found that in every context, from US social policy to global health to the UK’s National Health Service to estimates of climate policies, the results are “fat-tailed.” That’s statistics talk for the conclusion that the best interventions are much, much better than the average interventions.

How much better are these super-interventions?

It depends, but here are a couple of examples: The most cost-effective treatments examined by Britain’s National Health Service were 120 times more effective than the median treatment. A World Bank study found the most effective interventions in global health were 38 times more effective than the median ones.

And why should I care about giving my money to the 38-times-more-effective place?

Because it lets you do a lot more good. Suppose you’re giving $7,500 a year. If you gave that to an average global health program, you’d be providing 30 more total years of healthy life to a few people, per the World Bank data.

30 years of life! That’s pretty good, right?

It’s great. But If you put that money toward one of the 2.5 percent most cost-effective interventions, you’d save about 1,275 years of life.

Holy shit, I can provide a millennium of extra life?

Quite possibly! These are necessarily rough numbers and you shouldn’t take them too literally. You might merely save hundreds of years of life. But the magnitudes here strongly suggest that you should be careful about choosing where to donate, because the difference between the best and the merely okay is huge.

There’s a reason the philosopher Toby Ord, who originated the “10 percent of income to effective charities” pledge idea, has argued that cost-effectiveness is a moral imperative, on par with the moral imperative to give money at all.

So I looked at the GiveWell list of top charities … why aren’t there any working in the US?

Good question. The short answer is the US is a rich country, which means everything tends to cost more than it does abroad — including the cost of helping people in need. The US still has extreme poverty, in the global, living-on-$2-a-day standard, but it’s comparatively rare and hard to target effectively. The poorest Americans also have access to health care and education systems that, while obviously inferior compared to those enjoyed by rich Americans, are still superior to those of very poor countries.

To be blunt: People in the US simply are not dying for want of a $1.50 anti-malaria pill. (For one thing, the US managed to essentially eradicate malaria transmission from within its borders.) That means it is much, much more cost-effective to help people abroad.

How much more cost-effective?

Here’s one example. Years ago, GiveWell actually looked into a number of US charities, like the Nurse-Family Partnership program for infants, the KIPP chain of charter schools, and the HOPE job-training program. It found that all were highly effective but were also far more cost-intensive than the best foreign charities. KIPP and the Nurse-Family Partnership cost more than $9,000 per child served, while a program like the Malaria Consortium’s prevention efforts costs around $4,500 per life saved.

There’s been less work on evaluating US charities in recent years than would be ideal, and I’d love to hear about charities that can save lives here very cost-effectively. But right now, the evidence suggests to me that it’s much more expensive to save lives in the US than abroad.

But … I still want to help people closer to me.

That’s a commendable impulse! I get it, really, and if the most I can convince you to do here is give 10 percent of your income to fight poverty in the US, then you should do that and I’ll take the win.

But I would also ask you to consider the idea that people in other, much poorer countries have equal moral weight to those who live in your country. Their lives matter just as much. And if you can help, say, 100 of them for the cost of helping one American, and you choose to do the latter, you’re making an implicit choice to value Americans much more than non-Americans. I think there might be valid reasons to make that choice — but it’s not one I want to make, so that’s not how I donate.

What about animals? This all sounds very human-centric. Animals count, too!

Indeed they do. I think the best critique of GiveWell’s list — well, less a critique than an argument not to use it exclusively — is that you can do even more good, even more efficiently if you try to help animals, especially farm animals bred and raised in extreme suffering just so they can be slaughtered. There are billions of them, and very little is spent trying to help them. If you want to help them, Animal Charity Evaluators has some good suggestions of where to give. I’m partial to the Humane League, which pressures corporations to improve their treatment of farmed animals.

This all … sounds like effective altruism.

It does because it is. Todd and Ord were among the founders of effective altruism, and generally the community and people in it have developed a lot of the ideas you see above, from the focus on cost-effectiveness to the “give 10 percent” idea to taking animals seriously.

Didn’t effective altruists do a bunch of crimes lately?

A bunch of EAs definitely did a bunch of crimes very recently. Sam Bankman-Fried and several of his colleagues at FTX and Alameda Research identified as EAs and stated that they were only becoming billionaires to donate the proceeds to effective charities. Of course, they turned out to be stealing lots of money in the process and Bankman-Fried has since been convicted in federal court. (Disclosure: In 2022, Bankman-Fried’s philanthropic family foundation, Building a Stronger Future, awarded Vox’s Future Perfect a grant for a 2023 reporting project. That project is now on pause.)

So he did crimes because of these ideas?

I don’t think we know, but there are some theories. One theory is that Bankman-Fried took the idea that you should make as much money as possible and donate it as efficiently as possible, and ran waaaaaay too far with it, to the point where committing outright fraud to make money to donate made sense to him, on the apparent grounds that the potential good that could be done with it was worth the risk to himself and many others. Other theories hold that he was just lying the whole time, never cared about doing the right thing, and used EA as a cover for his own greed. Either way, it reflects very badly on EA.

So why are you asking me to take these effective altruist ideas seriously?

Because they’re good ideas and they’re in danger of being totally discredited because of some effective altruists who didn’t even take the “donate a lot of your income to normal charities that save lives” part of the philosophy seriously. Look at SBF: He distributed a bunch of money to causes he valued, but they were explicitly not causes involving giving people lifesaving medication right now. They were more speculative “longtermist” causes — things like AI safety and preventing global catastrophic risks. Whatever you think of that behavior, it’s precisely not what I’m asking you to do right now.

If they didn’t take these ideas seriously, why should I?

Because you have the opportunity to save lives, right now, and you should take it.

This whole thing where you think I’m, like, obligated to give this much is weird.

I don’t think you’re “obligated.” I just think it’s a good thing to do and that you should consider it. If everyone did it, we could end global poverty and then some. And I don’t even think it’s purely an altruistic good thing. I think it’ll be good for you as a person, too.

Oh, really? I should selfishly give away 10 percent of my income?

That’s honestly a big part of why I do it.

Really? For yourself?

Sure. Look, I think it’s important to do good for other people, in and of itself. That’s a major motivator, definitely.

But … you ever wonder if your life has meaning? If it makes any kind of difference to the world? Personally, I want to live a life that means something, that leaves things ever so slightly better than I found them. I want to be pursuing goals that aren’t just material. I don’t want to mark the progression of my life solely through raises and promotions, or fall victim to the subtle pressures that push me to spend more and more of my money on gadgets and furniture that make me progressively less happy.

What on earth are you even talking about?

I’m talking about a problem that, for me, giving 10 percent of my income away helps solve. One, it helps establish a baseline meaning or impact from my work — if nothing else,I know that the money I make through my job contributes to saving people’s lives. That has to count for something. That’s a source of real meaning and pride.

Two, it provides a powerful counterforce to the treadmill that comes as you age and make more money, a treadmill that pushes you to spend lots of it to keep up with your peers or feel like you’re living better. There are definitely times when I feel like I’m not taking as nice a vacation as my friends are, or where I feel kinda cheap for having mostly Wayfair furniture while my friends have a nice, solid wood dining table. Sometimes I blame the donations for these feelings.

But mostly I am thankful for them. The idea that, after you reach a certain level of baseline comfort, additional consumer spending is going to make you dramatically happier is a seductive lie. And one of the few weapons I have against it is the knowledge that I face a very real choice between, say, getting one of those amazing lie-flat business-class airplane seats for my next vacation and saving a human being’s life. That lets me resist the former, and live a life that feels just a tiny bit more meaningful.

Okay, fine, I’m in. Where do I sign up?

The group Giving What We Can runs a pledge, which I and thousands of others have signed, for people who commit to donating 10 percent of their income to highly effective charities. You can sign if you want. But the main thing to do is just give.

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